The Art of Translation: Many Englishes, Many Chineses

Jeremy Tiang

After a recent translation conference, a young colleague brought up an interesting question: “I keep hearing people say that they translate from the Spanish, they translate from the French. Why the?”

Why indeed. This was asked of a carful of people, and the best we could collectively come up with was, “It’s an attempt to sound more professional, more formal.” Afterward, I wondered if there was something else going on, an unconscious desire to streamline language into a singular entity. “The Spanish,” as if there are not many Spanishes, as many as there are regions where it is spoken. More, probably. What Gregory Rabassa, who translated the work of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clarice Lispector, and many others before his death in 2016, called the “wild variety of meanings, subtle and direct, that cling to words,” variations that are wide enough within a single community, let alone multiplied across territories. 

I translate from Chinese to English, languages I find full of multiplicity and contradiction. Both are spoken across huge swaths of the globe, by vast numbers of people, which makes them difficult to contain—English with its porous willingness to absorb into itself all manner of local variations, Chinese with the literal and metaphorical boundaries separating its various domains. Having now worked on almost twenty books—fiction and nonfiction, in a variety of genres—and an equal number of plays, trafficking from and to about ten countries, I find myself possessed of many different ears and voices, to be deployed at the appropriate juncture. 

We are familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s quip about England and America being divided by a common language. This is often spoken of tritely as a matter of word choice: pavement or sidewalk, lift or elevator. Yet translating between British and American isn’t as simple as doing a find-and-replace for courgette and zucchini. (Many people assume it’s straightforward, however. “It’s not arugula science,” they cry.) Even after half a decade in this country, I am constantly discovering new distinctions I could never have imagined. Recently I was admonished for saying “at the weekend”—everyone knows it’s “on the weekend.” 

These differences, strategically deployed, can be a tool. A British editor informs me that many U.K. readers actually prefer thrillers to be in American English—something about the fast-moving cadences is somehow more, well, thrilling. Conversely I sometimes lean on the British vocabulary of class distinction when the different layers of society need to be distinct. One caveat: When translating work for the theater, I find it best to use the English that comes most naturally to the actors, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. It’s one thing to demand flexibility of the voice in the reader’s head, quite a different matter to put words in the mouth of another artist.

So the question remains: Which English do we translate into? The answer may depend on the desired effect, as above, or it may be even more clear-cut: the version demanded by the publisher. Under capitalism, after all, the needs of commerce rule supreme, and readers want what they want. (Yes, I am speaking here as a practitioner; when one translates to pay the rent, the art must go hand in hand with certain pragmatic concerns.) Ah, but what if you did have a choice and none of this applied? Then presumably you would translate into your own English. Which brings me to a question that I often have trouble answering: Which version of English is my own?

I was born and grew up in Singapore, to parents of Malaysian Chinese and Sri Lankan Tamil heritage. I went to university in the U.K., where I then lived for a decade. I have now been in the United States for six years. Out of all these influences, where do I locate “my own” English? In an era of increased mobility, with immigrants and the formerly colonized eager to stake a claim to their own cultural spaces, I daresay we will see more and more people with similarly difficult-to-classify backgrounds undertaking this work of translation—and perhaps, given the swirl of languages and cultures within me, a life in translation was inevitable.

Something particularly interesting happens when the act of translation takes place within a formerly colonized space, between two languages that the translator can plausibly lay claim to. I am thinking here of territories such as India or Nigeria, Hong Kong or Singapore, where English is widely spoken. Having grown up in anglophone Singapore, I find it jarring when an American translator renders a Singaporean Chinese text in his own idiom, filling it with elevators and high schools, words we would never use. It feels like being colonized all over again, to have people from the West coming in and stamping their lexicon over ours.

Postcolonial though it may be, Singapore doesn’t use a straightforward British English, but rather a localized version that is sometimes called Singlish. Beyond the binary choice of aubergine or eggplant, we have the local word brinjal. We use neither cellphones nor mobiles, but rather handphones. Syntax bends to forms borrowed from local languages: “Is this okay?” becomes “Can?” or for emphasis “Can or not?” 

So we are back to the question of which English to translate into—and in these cases I would argue that the answer is not “your own” but “our own,” the English of the place being translated from and into, or “their own,” if the translator is from outside the culture. Can a non-Singaporean translator work on a Singaporean text? Of course, but I would argue that an extra layer of research needs to be undertaken in that case, into the target as well as the source language and culture. Ideally a Singaporean editor would be involved—a second pair of eyes able to point out that we use porridge to mean rice congee rather than oatmeal.

Recently I worked with a British editor on a translation of a Singaporean novel, and we had a disagreement that surprised me. A character in the book complains that her child is “playful.” The editor’s note to me was, “Isn’t being playful good?” To which I responded, “Not in Singapore! Having fun is a distraction from your studies.” This exchange reminded me how culture shapes language—we think we can agree on the meaning of the word playful, but the connotations are very different in Asia and the West. We can only agree insofar as we share the same mind-set, but at regular intervals irreconcilable differences will crop up.

I have also had the experience of editing a Singaporean book. In this case, the translator was British, and we had to find a vocabulary that felt natural to her while being compatible with the Singapore lexicon. One of the words we got stuck on was arse, which I highlighted as being far too British. Should we go American with ass, then? But no, that felt wrong too. After much negotiation, we settled on bum as a word that would feel “right” in Singapore, that she could also comfortably use.

(If I may further lower the tone, I’d like to quote Gregg Barnes, the costume designer of Pretty Woman: The Musical on Broadway. In a recent interview he spoke of the difficulties of working with the early-nineties time period. “You want to feel the guy is beautiful and sexy, and not a character wearing an unstructured baggy suit that was appealing more than thirty years ago. We tried to keep the fit and the fabrics true to our [modern] eye, but a lot of the details come from the period.” I don’t often find a perfect analogy for translation when I’m reading a Playbill, but this is exactly what is sometimes necessary—not the thing itself, but an evocation of the thing.)

Does this seem a little involved? That, I find, is the price of existing on the periphery. How far can we take this principle, before a text is marked too inaccessible, too unfamiliar, too somehow alien? There are techniques one learns, ways of providing context that indicates: Yes, I am doing this deliberately; this is a literary choice, not a defect of my English. You should translate only into your native tongue, we are told again and again. But is this tongue native to me? Well, it is and it isn’t, and there is a certain performativity in laying claim to it without bending completely to the hegemony of the center.

And yet the thing is worth doing. One has a finite amount of time, and so a limited number of books that can be translated. I am drawn to bringing the ones into the world that make the most difference, and that is often the ones that are least like the existing body of literature. (By an unfortunate coincidence, these are the very books that are hardest to sell.) By expanding the range of Englishes on offer in print, we stretch minds.  

Having established that there are many different Englishes at the target end of this exchange, one would expect a similar story at the source—but, no, the pendulum swings even wider here. Within China there are already the variations you would expect from a very big country with more than a billion people in it. While translating a novel from Chengdu, I was informed by the author—who fortunately speaks excellent English—that bihu (귿빪; literally “wall-tiger”) might mean “gecko” in the rest of China, but in Sichuan, it means “ivy.” That made a lot more sense—I’d been wondering why there were so many geckos running around on the outside of a building. These multiple meanings are a wonderful feature of regional variation, contributing to the richness of the language and, incidentally, making the translator’s job much, much more difficult.

There is, of course, more to Chinese than Mandarin. We could argue all day long about whether Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese, and so on are “dialects,” as the official version would have it, or if they are in fact different languages. On the page, though, they share a writing system—thanks to China’s first emperor, who unified the Chinese script in the third century BCE. Broadly speaking this means they function as the same language for the translator, but only in the most general of terms. When I am translating a book from a Mandarin-speaking milieu, the linguistic world I see on the page is, clearly enough, the one being written. Often, though, I find myself at one remove, knowing that I read a text as Mandarin but that the author wrote it with another Chinese in mind.

How much does this matter? Even with my rudimentary Cantonese, I know that the sounds are completely different. Cantonese has more tones and feels more melodic to me, compared with Mandarin’s staccato rhythms. I work with a poet from Macau and have found it helpful to have her read her work to me in Cantonese while I do my best to follow along, so I can hold the sound in my head as I work, even as I derive the meanings from my Mandarin understanding of the characters.

Thus the pleasures and pitfalls of a nonphonetic language—a Cantonese speaker and I look at the same ideogram and speak it in completely different ways. More than that, Cantonese does not completely map onto the Mandarin-derived writing system, known as 蝎충刀 (shumianyu)—“book surface language.” In my following along I notice that the Cantonese speaker sometimes transposes word order to fit Cantonese syntax or substitutes other words altogether. The Mandarin 청唐 (meiyou; “have not”) is pronounced in Cantonese as a single sound (mou), but still written as two characters.

There is a Cantonese script, with its own set of characters for all the words and sounds that don’t exist in Mandarin. Mou is represented by “冇”—the character for “have,” 唐, with its insides scooped out. This isn’t widely used, particularly outside Hong Kong. Recently, though, I was lucky enough to work on a book by Yeng Pway Ngon, a Singaporean writer in his seventies, whose novel Costume (Balestier Press, 2019), marks a painful episode he lived through—the erasure of non-Mandarin Chineses from Singapore. This took place in the 1970s, when the Singapore government decided that the country’s future lay in Mandarin, a language that was almost no one’s mother tongue. In her memoir Growing Up in the Era of Lee Kuan Yew (Lingzi Media, 2014), the Singaporean writer Lee Hui Min recalls coming home one day and turning on the TV, only to find all the same people who’d been speaking Cantonese the day before were now spouting Mandarin; they’d been dubbed. This is why many people in my generation are unable to speak to our parents or grandparents in any language but English, or if they don’t speak English, then no language at all. This is the violence and loss that marks Yeng’s text and the baggage that its languages carry. 

In Costume, Yeng describes the tenuous relationship between a Cantonese-speaking old man and his Mandarin-speaking granddaughter, the gulf between them caused at least in part by their different varieties of Chinese. The author’s radical intervention is to leave all Cantonese dialogue in the book in Cantonese script rather than obligingly translating it into the written language—the shumianyu—of Mandarin, thus rendering it opaque to non-Cantonese readers. (As a concession, he has a Cantonese-to-Mandarin glossary at the back of the book—but even having to consult this is a reminder to the Mandarin speaker that not everything has to be immediately legible to us, a reversal of the usual hegemony.)

My difficulty arose in working out how to convey this duality in the translation. I know from experience that trying to map English dialects onto other languages rarely works—any attempt to render the Cantonese as Scots or broad Texan would simply come across as contrived. For a while I toyed with the idea of transliterating the Cantonese, or even leaving it in the original characters, to mimic the effect in the original—but would that leave me derelict in my duties? I translate from Chinese, after all, not just Mandarin. Besides, it’s hard enough to get American readers to pick up a translated book, let alone one from Singapore. Confronting them with unintelligible dialogue would probably make them put it down again just as quickly.

In the end I took to heart the maxim “If you can’t do it well, do it quickly” and adopted the simplest method: establishing as a convention that Cantonese speech would be marked by italics, and appending a translator’s note at the end explaining what I’d done and why, adding some background about Singapore so anyone wanting more context could find it here. All my translator’s notes are a mixture of word-nerdery (here are all the linguistic nuances only 1 percent of readers will care about) and apology (here are the things I was unable to convey, I’m sorry, mea culpa, I did try).

Just to make my life that much more complex, I’ve made an effort to move away from the centrality of China, translating more work from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, and Singapore. This has involved expanding my frame of reference and stepping out of my comfort zone of “standard” Mandarin. Again, rewarding, and again, difficult. One has to be constantly on the alert, ready to challenge assumptions of what is “normal,” including one’s own. I remind myself that the reason these things feel uncomfortable is because of erasure, and the solution is to re-center, to re-familiarize, and so to enlarge the range of my knowledge, rather than to stay within the familiar. 

Translators don’t just use language—we shape it. This is true of everyone, but more than most we have the opportunity to carve the language into new forms, to graft onto it from other cultures. Language is not a static phenomenon, and we are not passive consumers of it. The choices we make are amplified as we create a body of work, as we teach and pass on our process.

A couple of examples from Chinese: Although the idea that Chinese society runs on a system of relationships called guanxi has become commonplace, I push back against this usage, because retaining the untranslated word plants the idea that this is something esoteric or even sinister, rather than plain old networking. Names, too, are another flashpoint—the ambiguity of Chinese characters cannot exist in English, forcing the translator to choose between, say, the Cantonese Au Siu-Man or the Mandarin Ou Xiaoman. I have heard some declare that one transliteration system or another is “standard,” and that Pinyin, for instance, which is derived from the Mandarin, is the only way to go. My personal rule is that characters are called whatever they call themselves, even if that sometimes means they have different surnames from their own parents, the Mandarin Huang becoming the Cantonese Wong.

This isn’t neat, but I don’t think translation is in the business of providing neat solutions. There is a certain pleasure, of course, in the elegant turn of phrase or the deft transposition, but on the whole I don’t believe these rough patches should be sanded away, leaving the work frictionless. There is a model of translation that resembles a funnel—everything from the source language swirls toward a single opening, and it all comes out the same way. The kitchen implement I prefer is the sieve—allowing as much as possible through, falling as it will, breaking up clumps to ease the flow.

Translation is an art, yes, but not a decorative one. This isn’t about the beautiful line, but the rough-hewn meaning that shapes the world. Translators must resist hegemony and reject the center for the periphery, which is where the most interesting things are happening anyway.

In Translation as Transhumance (Feminist Press, 2017), translated by Ros Schwartz, Mireille Gansel writes of the movement of people and the movement of words as “the transhumance routes of translation, the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated, the movement of huge flocks of words through all the vernaculars of the umbrella language of poetry.” Translation becomes an act of listening, a sort of bearing witness. “It suddenly dawned on me,” she writes, “that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other.”

And that is, I think, the key to translation—that we affect language but much more so are affected by it. By remaining receptive and attuned to the multiplicity of language; by embracing the many Englishes, many Chineses, many other tongues; by getting our hands dirty in the necessarily messy and imprecise navigation of these borderless territories, we broaden rather than narrow the possibilities of translation, allow ourselves to be the sieve rather than the funnel, and come ever closer to our true calling as translators—to make the world a little more open than it is.


A version of this essay was delivered as a talk at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies at Princeton University on November 19, 2018. 

Jeremy Tiang’s translations from Chinese include novels by Su Wei-Chen, Zhang Yueran, Chan Ho-Kei, Yeng Pway Ngon, and Li Er, as well as nonfiction by Yu Qiuyu and Jackie Chan. He also writes and translates plays and is the recipient of a PEN/Hein Grant, the People’s Literature Award Mao-Tai Cup for Translation, and an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship. Tiang is the author of a short story collection, It Never Rains on National Day (Epigram Books, 2015), and a novel, State of Emergency (Epigram Books, 2017), which won the Singapore Literature Prize. He is the managing editor of Pathlight and a founding member of Cedilla & Co., a collective of literary translators.